Colin Hambrook caught up with Lizzie Emeh at the Blue Camel Club, the Old Market Arts Centre, Hove on Monday 8 March 2010.
It's hard not to be entranced by Lizzie Emeh's talent. Whether she's singing soul, R&B, jazz or funk she knows how to reach out to her audience and get them to respond.
It’s a fun night for regulars at The Blue Camel Club and Lizzie knows how to deliver what the 150 or so clubbers want to hear. Belting out the chorus of 'I Like the Bass' she gets the audience to chant the 'pom, pom, pom' in the refrain. A sea of arms are raised in the air in anticipation. It’s impossible not to be engaged.
She finishes her first set with one of her more personal songs ‘Over You’ – introducing it by asking the audience to think about what being in love means:
‘They say that learning disabled people shouldn’t be allowed to fall in love – and sometimes they could be right.’
She delivers the ballad with an intonation that immediately gets you in touch with an emotion that demands learning disabled peoples’ human rights.
Her second set ends with the title track of her debut album Loud and Proud. It’s an anthem encouraging other aspiring black and learning disabled musicians not to be put off by the barriers that are put in the way. The clubbers sing out the chorus. This is a performance with a massive feel-good factor.
Loud and Proud was released in October 2009 at the Royal Festival Hall on Heart n Soul’s own record label. Lizzie Emeh attracted an audience of 800 strong. She says: ‘The Royal Festival Hall was totally amazing. It's hard to put into words. Beverley Knight - one of the most epic people in the music world - introduced me onto the stage via video link - as "a pop princess with soul." It was quite surreal. I only knew about it two days before the performance, so it was a great surprise.’
Since then she's been touring throughout the UK promoting the album, primarily playing to audiences of learning disabled people. Lizzie says: ‘It's a big step for me - now I am following a solo career. Heart n Soul have been strongly behind me. It's been really, really good.’
In the process she has courted a fair amount of media attention with interviews in The Guardian, Times Online, the Evening Standard, BBC Radio 4's Today Programme as well as a great interview with Gus Garside from Art Spider. This is quite an accomplishment, and although there is the usual medical model interest in the mainstream features, Lizzie’s personality is strong enough to get her message across about the importance of challenging the prejudice and discrimination learning disabled people face.
Lizzie’s talent was discovered by Heart n Soul more than ten years ago when she got up to perform at an Open Mic session. Since then she’s written and performed in some of Heart n Soul’s touring shows like Large and has travelled with them across Europe and Asia.
She has come a long way since then and Loud and Proud is a testament to that fact. The album took a year and a half to put together, and all the songs on the album have been written or co-written by her. Some of the songs – like Angels and Over You – are very personal – and others like People Over the World and Manifesto have more of a political edge. These two were written by ad-libbing with collaborators Danny Smith and Mat Fraser.
The album Incorporates a range of music styles: ‘When I write I have a rhythm and beat in my head. It all happens in the studio. Sometimes Mark will give me a bass line, Charles or Danny will play some chords and the words and tune come. We'll throw different ideas around. I want people to listen to my songs and respect where I am coming from. I have a big ambition to be the first learning disabled artist to get a M.O.B.O. award.
To help get her there she has made two music videos - Hard Love with Spectrecom and I Like the Bass with Cor Films. ‘It has been amazing seeing the kind of work you'd see on MTV come out of the filming. When we were at The Royal Festival Hall they played the video of Hard Love and my brother and mum were sitting beside me, watching me with pride, saying ‘that’s you!’
Lizzie has a few short films under her belt now. She starred in Heart n Soul's first ever drama short film called Celebrity Shotgun, written by the actors and directed by Mat Fraser. The film was put forward for the Oska Bright Best Acting Award and went on tour to twenty five festivals in the UK and around the world.
It’s been a long and fruitful journey since the Heart n Soul’s Squidz and Octopus Clubs first came about. Lizzie reflects: ‘It was when Heart n Soul were touring Belgium that they first decided what had to be done. A club owner wouldn't let the band in. He said they had to change, so they changed clothes, and went back. But he still said 'no.' So the band thought 'if they won't let us play in their clubs we'll invent our own.'
Since then, club nights that mirror Heart n Soul’s ideas – like Carousel’s Blue Camel Club - have sprung up, right across the country. Heart n Soul have nurtured a whole playlist of groups of learning disabled artists.
Pino Frumiento, one of Heart n Soul's key artists, and director, Mark Williams have recently been awarded MBE’s for their work founding the organisation. "It’s about time someone with a learning disability got recognised. Pino's got more than 50 songs that he's written for Heart n Soul over years he's been there. Pino and Mark have brought the whole thing a long way since 1985."
Lizzie told me that there is a new album in the pipeline, with several of the songs written and waiting for Mark, Charles, Ricki and the others to sit down in the studio to record. Meanwhile you can buy her album Loud and Proud on iTunes or via her myspace page - or by sending a cheque to Heart n Soul’s office at the Albany, Deptford, East London.
You can track her down at the following gigs:
Saturday 20 March – Mash Up Club,
Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Mall, 12 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AH
£4 / £3 ICA members
Box office: 020 7930 3647
Telephone: 020 7930 0493
Wednesday 24 March 2010 – Club Soda, Croydon
Club Soda Spring Party
Croydon Clocktower Town Hall, Katharine Street Croydon CR9 1ET
Box Office: 020 8253 1030